Coaster Kingdom

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The following review will go into explicit detail regarding the attraction and the surprises it may conceal. If you choose to read on, be warned that it may detract from your first ride on the attraction.

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The Haunting, Drayton Manor

Sometimes things just don't go your way. Once upon a time, Drayton Manor was a place of unabashed happiness. Then, in early 1996, just as everyone was looking forward to a bright new season, a surge of demonic energy descended on the park. As you can imagine, this was a real shock for the staff, who wouldn't normally expect a plague of evil forces until July, when the school trips start.

On further investigation, it transpired that the park had become the focus of a strange supernatural phenomenon, centred on the old abandoned vicarage. Of course, if this had happened in America, the solution would have been simple - they'd make a quick call the FBI, wait for Mulder and Scully to pop round, and everything would be sorted within the hour, leaving plenty of space for ad-breaks. In Britain, the best paranormal investigation team we can offer is the Institute of Metaphysical Research, who can't be all that good, given that they've been in the vicarage for years, and don't seem to be have made a fat lot of progress.

What the IMR lack in speed, they make up for in hospitality. While the FBI's investigations take place in total secrecy, our boys are more than willing to escort groups of visitors around the vicarage to take a peek at what 21st Century phantom fighting is all about. Anyone who fancies checking up on the team's progress should head through the old gateway between the entrances of Apocalypse and Golden Nuggets Shoot Out.

A short path will take you past the parish notice board, through a heavily wooded area of the park, and to a misty clearing in front of the vicarage itself. Parked at the side of the building is an IMR Mobile Containment Unit (AKA "van"), adorned with the Institute's logo of a monster's face with a line through. They must have been furious when the Ghostbusters copied the idea.

Eventually, the door of the truck opens, and from the darkness steps your guide, who counts 48 people through the gate, condemning everyone else to an excruciatingly long wait for the next tour. Believe it or not, this figure is one of the IMR's elite operatives, a "Special Unexplained Phenomenon Agent", or "SUPA" for short. Don't you just love a ride with a sense of humour?

Unfortunately, SUPAs do tend to lack the enigmatic charisma of Mulder and Scully, and usually come in the form of a bored looking youngster in IMR boiler suit. If you're really lucky, you might get one of the Institute's undercover investigators, who disguise themselves in Drayton Manor staff uniforms, presumably either to remain inconspicuous, or to avoid looking like a Perpetual Recipient of Abuse and Teasing ("PRAT").

The interior of the truck features a two-tiered viewing area, from which we can see banks of screens, panels, flashing lights, and all sorts of technical looking what-nots, doo-dahs, and thingummies, all essential weapons in the fight against supernatural naughtiness. Once everyone is safely inside the van, we are briefed on events so far. Officially, this information is classified, but you seem like a trustworthy kind of reader, so listen carefully, and don't tell anyone that I told you this:

On the two main screens, a message appears to warn us of an incoming transmission. Sure enough, a figure soon appears and introduces himself as IMR big-cheese, Doctor X. Doctor X has seen it all over his long career, and has been in situations so scary that it made all his hair fall out. He explains his theory that vicarage has been possessed by the demonic spirit of the clergyman who once lived there. Ominously, we are to be the second group to investigate the place. What happened to the first group? Well, they haven't been seen since they entered the building, and part of our job is to find out what happened to them.

The last moments of the first team's transmission are then shown, in case it gives us any clues. This is the same footage that was used in Drayton Manor's TV adverts for the ride, which suggests that the IMR aren't too fussed about confidentiality. Dr X returns and casually tells us that the current IMR team are hopelessly undermanned, and quite out of their depth in an investigation of this type, so we'll have to be careful in case anything goes wrong. This must be very demoralising for the SUPAs, who are not only being sent to an almost-certain doom, but also have to endure this humiliation from their boss. It begs the question of why Dr X doesnít get up off his backside and lend a hand himself.

We leave the van, and head though a dimly lit passage into the vicarage itself. As we near the end, the SUPA stops and tells us that we're about to enter the library, and that we should be constantly on the lookout for paranormal activity. As he leads us through the door, a skeleton swings out above us. Is this our first encounter with the spirit world? No, false alarm - this must have been put there by the IMR to test our nerve, as the swing mechanism is clearly visible in the rafters. Oh well, we must have all passed the test, as none of us are remotely scared. On we go.

Sure enough, we find ourselves in the library. Up on the wall, we see a painting of the vicar, a pleasant looking chap who seems like he wouldn't harm a fly, let alone destroy mankind. Although everything seems normal, the ever-cautious SUPA advises us that this is where paranormal activity has registered most strongly (possibly using the PEPSI scale - Paranormal Experiences Per Square Inch). As a result, we should stay in the middle of the room. Once we have complied, the lights dim, and a surprisingly good pre-show begins.

The painting dissolves, and through the frame we see an animatronic figure, depicting the possessed parson in his current form. If you're wondering why the whole place is so dark, the answer comes as he reveals that he is now a vampire, and that the arrival of a bunch of fresh human victims is a dream come true. Helpfully, the vampirical vicar realises that we're here to investigate what happened to the first IMR team, reveals that they're still hanging around the vicarage somewhere. At this point, the ceiling becomes transparent, and we see their bodies, still in uniform, floating aimlessly in space.

Despite feasting on the earlier investigators, the parasitic pastor is far from satisfied, and intends a similar fate for us. As he gets more excited, ground starts pounding up and down, and bright lights flash up between the floorboards. This whole scene is surprisingly effective, and the only real fault is the way that the reanimated reverend loses all control of his mouth, which carries on opening and closing without the slightest correlation to what he is saying (possibly due to an advanced case of rigor mortis).

In a tremendous display of self-control, the SUPA seems totally unperturbed by the discovery of his colleagues' corpses, and decides that our safety is paramount (which is more than could be said for Dr X). He advises us to split into two teams and head through the two doors at the side of the room. Which one will you choose? Left or right? One door presumably leads to freedom, and the other to certain doom. Which way should we go? As you go through your chosen door, you find yourself in a corridor. At the other end, we find a door leading to the chapel, and the climax of the story.

We enter the chapel and find four rows of pews, all facing the centre of the room. As we file in, more figures enter through another door and sit in the shadows opposite. Who are these ghastly creatures? Friend or foe? On closer inspection, they look like the people who took the other escape route from the library, although they could easily have crossed over to the dark side during our separation.

At the centre of the chapel, a menacing tomb keeps the two groups apart. This is certainly an interesting piece of architecture, and despite being centuries old, is shaped uncannily like a modern-day ice-cream cart. As we take our seats, the SUPA explains that, as a holy place, we should be safe in the chapel while he bravely goes back into the vicarage to fight the powers of evil all alone. While he's away, exercising his exorcising skills, we should just sit tight and await his return.

The doors close behind us, and the tomb becomes the focus of attention, glowing eerily as it begins drawing energy from its audience. Lap bars come down firmly, ending all hopes of escape, and the lights dim. Heaven only knows what is required to vanquish a vampire vicar, but it certainly seems like an epic battle is going on nearby. Although we were told to keep calm, that's easier said than done. For example, is it my imagination or is the whole building suddenly leaning to one side?

Indeed it is. It looks like the chapel isn't as immune as we thought, as the floor has detached itself from the building, and is swinging back and forth. As it gains momentum, we find ourselves looking down into the crypt, where rows of coffins are displayed before our eyes. Gregorian chanting in the background creates an eerie atmosphere, while the central tomb continues to absorb energy. The swinging floor picks up speed, and is soon whirling around madly, performing complete loops within the tight confines of the chapel building as the battle outside gets ever more fierce. It's now time for our SUPA to use his last-resort weapon. This is it chaps, the ultimate battle, mankind versus the paranormal, winner takes all - and I really do mean ALL. Good luck everyone.

The fight back begins, and a blast of energy sees the whole scene glow in ultraviolet light, highlighting the gargoyles in the chapel roof, which look ominously like the monster's head from the IMR logo. Thankfully, it looks like we've won the battle, as the movement slows and the room slowly returns to normal. It looks like Dr X was wrong to doubt his crew's ability after all. Finally the end is in sight, or have I spoken too soon?

Once the floor has re-taken its rightful place at the bottom of the room, everything stops. The lights go out. The music comes to an abrupt halt. A dim light focuses on the centre of the room, where the lid of the tomb is pulled back. For a few seconds, we are left to wonder what this could mean, until finally a group of vampire bats emerge. The lights go out once more, and sound effects combine with blasts of air behind the seats create a sense of the bats flying around as they seek their escape. Finally, they make their exit, and the vicarage is once again free of the curse.

With that, the lights return to normal, and the lap bars release us from our nightmare. The doors open at the far side of the chapel, our gateway to freedom at long last. Worryingly, the SUPA is still nowhere to be seen. Did he make the supreme sacrifice to save our lives? It looks like we'll never know for sure, so we really ought to escape while we can. Dr X should be ashamed of himself for belittling this heroic figure after what he has done to save us, but no, he doesnít even bother to thank us for helping. Iím glad I donít work for a bloke like him.

Despite everything they've been through, the rest of the group handles the trauma well, and react with true courage and dignity, continuing about their business almost as if nothing has happened. We depart the vicarage through a back entrance, and can be relieved that, having narrowly avoided being condemned to the eternal void of despair, we instead find ourselves back in Tamworth (and before you ask, yes there is a difference). Sadly, there are always people looking to make a quick profit from others' suffering, and we are forced through a shop selling cheap horror merchandise.

For the uninitiated, the whole chapel scene is, as you've probably guessed, just an elaborate optical illusion. It is, in fact, a Vekoma "Mad House" ride, which means that the entire scene is built inside a revolving drum, with the floor held separately within. During the ride, we only actually move by around twenty degrees each way, but as the rest of the room is moving, riders are (hopefully) fooled into believing that they really are being turned upside down.

Given that The Haunting is all about the reanimation of the dead, it is somehow appropriate that the ride itself is a resurrection of the old "Haunted Swing" rides, which were a common feature of amusement parks in the mid-20th Century. For anyone who wants to make the comparison, a rare example of an old-style Haunted Swing can be found at Pleasure Beach Blackpool, as the finale to "Impossible".

Aside from their more elaborate theming, Vekoma's ride differs from the original in two main ways:

Firstly, older versions require riders walk in and climb onto an obvious swing-type contraption, suspended at the centre of the room. Newer versions invariably disguise the swing as being a normal part of the room (the chapel floor in The Haunting's case), meaning that riders unwittingly board the swing as soon as they walk in, and shouldn't realise the nature of the ride until it begins.

Secondly, the older versions do not move the swing at all during the ride, meaning that riders do not get the physical sense of movement that modern versions provide. Although twenty degrees may sound like very little, it feels surprisingly effective when synchronised to the movement of the room.

So that's the idea, but does it really work? Well, The Haunting really is a great idea, but its execution is flawed. Unfortunately, I can sum up one of its main problems in one word. Hex. It simply can't compete with Hex, the epic Mad House at Drayton Manor's near neighbour, Alton Towers. This shouldn't really matter, but the plain fact is that a large proportion of Drayton Manor visitors will have been to Alton Towers and seen what Hex has to offer. To compare the two would be like comparing a low-budget B-Movie to a Hollywood blockbuster. In other words, The Haunting may have its good points, but is fighting a losing battle from the beginning.

On the plus side, the library pre-show is very entertaining indeed, and the ride redeems some of its weaker areas with liberal doses of humour (take a moment to read the parish notice board for proof). Minor points, like splitting the group as they leave the library, do help to increase the tension, as you can't help wondering whether the other side are getting a slightly different version of events (they're not, but that's not the point).

Although the decor of the swing room is not particularly elaborate, it does its job, and helps to set an appropriately gloomy atmosphere. Surprisingly, the fact that The Haunting's swing room is half the size of Hex's works in its favour, as it feels much more engaging and intimate, while also making it much easier to appreciate the idea that it is supposed to be you, rather than the room, that is moving.

In terms of the storyline, The Haunting achieves something that similar rides struggle to do, in that it has a proper sense of progression and conclusion. The truck scene tells us that we need to find out what happened to the first investigators, which we achieve in the library, and then to escape the all-too-vigorous vampire we find there. The idea that we are left in the "sanctuary" of the chapel while the SUPA goes back to fight the vampire is a neat way of avoiding the common flaw of telegraphing where the build-up ends and the ride begins (for example, why does Hex require staff to oversee our entry to the vault and then make themselves scarce, if we're only there to see the vault and the fallen branch?).

The addition of the final "escaping bats" scene is actually counter-productive, as it leaves a bit too much of a blank in the story for the riders to fill in for themselves. Earlier incarnations of the ride made no mention of vampires (the vicar was previously a plain old-fashioned zombie), and the story simply ended with the curse being defeated. Indeed, until you fill in the blanks, the bat scene is comfortably the most bizarre and peculiar anticlimax the ride could possibly have.

Unfortunately, while the storyline is generally good, it does show signs of the ride's age. The Haunting opened at a time when "The X Files" was the biggest thing on TV, and the ride draws heavily on the concepts and imagery popularised by the programme. Now that fashion has moved on, such ideas seem woefully out of date. Maybe the moral is that a theme park ride needs to have a longer shelf life than a film or TV show, and shouldn't be based on whatever is in vogue when the planning meeting takes place.

While the artistic side of The Haunting is perfectly respectable, it is the practical side that does most to let the ride down. While the idea of having an investigator as a guide is all very well and good, you need good actors to bring the idea to life, whereas in reality it's painfully obvious that the staff aren't exactly RADA graduates, and that they're not really relishing the role. This isn't a criticism of the staff themselves, but of the system which insists they go through the motions, and ignores the fact that not even the greatest actor on Earth could keep the act going all day every day. Be honest, how many times could you lead hordes of disinterested schoolchildren through the ride without tiring of the charade?

As for the practical side of things, while three groups can theoretically be in the building at once (one in each pre-show, and one in the swing room), in practice, it often takes just one group at a time, who go through the entire thing before the operator goes outside to collect the next group. This results in truly chronic delays of around ten or fifteen minutes between rides, which actually feel much longer thanks to the surroundings which, although well themed, offer very little to see or do while you wait. Compare this to Hex, where those in the queue are constantly shown videos, and given the chance to admire the various artefacts and the building itself.

In a sense, The Haunting is quite representative of Drayton Manor as a whole. It is full of good ideas, and has a modest, self-effacing charm, but it is handicapped by a couple of easily avoidable impracticalities, and by the fact that it lives firmly (if unfairly) in the shadow of Alton Towers. Although The Haunting was built first, this does not help the fact that riders will inevitably emerge from the exit making unflattering comparisons with Hex. This is annoying because The Haunting has the potential to a be a great ride in its own right, if only we could get to see it firing on all cylinders. If its potential could be realised, and it could incorporate some of the practicalities that help make other Mad Houses run like clockwork, The Haunting could be a real winner. As it is, the whole thing is slightly too clumsy, and lacks the sense of class it needs to be truly memorable. Shame.


JP 15 November 2004

Good points:

Unpretentious sense of humour 
Well paced storyline
Intimate and effective swing-room

Bad points:

Storyline has become outdated
New final scene is bizarre in the extreme
Agonisingly dull waits between rides

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